A Look at Franchise Tags from 2011-2020

As the NFL heads into the offseason, a key date on the league calendar is February 23rd and March 9th, the window in which teams can utilize either the franchise or transition tag. As we get closer to the date, I wanted to take a look at the historic usage of tags between 2011-2020:

  • Teams have used the franchise or transition tag 99 times
  • 55 of the 99 (55%) players tagged did NOT reach a long-term extension with their incumbent team, prior to the deadline to sign tagged players to extensions
  • Le’Veon Bell, Kirk Cousins, and Dak Prescott are the only 3 of the 99 players tagged who have received the “exclusive” designation
  • Teams that have applied the tag the most are the Chiefs (7), Cowboys (6), and Steelers/Dolphins/Broncos/WFT (5)
  • Teams that have applied the tag the fewest are the Packers (0), Texans/Seahawks (1), and Eagles/Lions/Raiders/Titans/Falcons/49ers/Saints/Vikings/Bills/Buccaners (2)
  • Positional groups seeing the most tags are Linebackers (18), Defensive Ends (15) and Kickers (10)
  • Positional groups seeing the fewest tags are Cornerbacks (5), Tight Ends (5), and Punters (2)

The graph below illustrates the usage of tags by year, with last year seeing the most tags since 2012.

If the salary cap is set to the widely reported figure of $180.5M, the franchise tag numbers for 2021 would be as projected below. 

The table below compares the 2021 projected franchise tag numbers with last year’s tag numbers.           

Position2021 Projected2020% Change
QB$24.828M$26.824M-7.44%
WR$15.808M$17.865M-11.50%
DE$14.530M$17.788M-18.31%
CB$14.895M$16.338M-8.83%
DT$13.736M$16.126M-14.82%
LB$14.630M$15.828M-7.57%
OL$13.602M$14.781M-7.98%
S$10.496M$11.441M-8.26%
TE$8.496M$10.607M-19.90%
RB$8.074M$10.278M-21.44%
K/P$4.433M$5.019M-11.67%

 A silver lining that teams may recognize from the expected salary cap decline is the discounted rate of franchise tags this season. For example, working off the 2021 projected tag numbers, it would only cost the Packers around $8M to tag Aaron Jones. While the Packers are currently $19M over the cap, if they can manage to create enough capspace through restructures and cuts to take on a $8M cap charge for Jones, it would be excellent value. Jones has the production to earn a deal valued in the top 5 of the RB market and the salary for that point in the market starts at $12.5M. With the 2021 tag numbers dropping at least 7%, year over year, across the board, it would not be shocking to see more teams using the tag, than typically in years past.

Navigating the Saints 2021 Salary Cap Situation

Though the Saints are looking like the top dog in the NFC, more and more people are starting to take notice of their salary cap situation next year. Jason LaCanfora of CBS wrote an article just last week on it where he asked some other team cap managers how to handle it and they all agreed it’s a pretty big mess. Assuming the cap drops to around $175 million we project the Saints to be in the ballpark of $95 million over the salary cap (this may get reported higher due to a unique contract situation that only occurred because of the CBA but we are factoring in the intent of that contract into our cap number), which I believe has to be the worst salary cap position a team has ever been in, though in the Saints defense nobody every anticipated a pandemic potentially wiping out the salary cap for a year.

So I’ll have some fun and take a shot at running through the Saints roster and some moves that I think they will consider.  At the end of each player move I’ll keep a running tally of where we are with the cap.

Restructure Drew Brees’ Contract Depending on Decision to Retire or Play

A lot of what the Saints will likely do with their roster hinges on the decision of Brees. Brees currently counts for $36.15 million on the Saints salary cap which clearly can’t happen if they want to comply with the cap. If he retires the team will pick up $13.5 million in cap space while carrying $22.65 million in dead money, but I think the Saints can get creative here to work with this contract.

If Brees is 100% certain he is going to retire the Saints can reduce his salary to the league minimum of $1.075 million. That would allow the Saints to drop his salary cap number from $36.15 million to $12.2225 million a savings of $23.925 million. The team would have to carry Brees as an active player until June 2nd at which point they would officially place him on the retired list and receive the June 1 cap benefit. Rather than taking on $22.65 million in dead money in 2021 the team would only have an $11.15 million charge for Brees in 2021 and $11.5 million in 2022.

What if Brees is not sure he wants to retire and acts a bit like Brett Favre at the end of his career? One option is to add more void years to the contract, reduce his salary as above, and convert the $23.925 million to an option bonus that is due after the first game of the season. Under that type of contract Brees would count for $17.01 million, a savings of $19.14 million. If Brees does decide to retire the team would get the same savings as in the first scenario since the option would never be exercised. If he plays then you have a lot more dead money to deal with in 2022 but that is the price of Brees returning.

If Brees is 100% certain that he will return again you have a few options. The basic one would mimic the $19.14 million in savings I just mentioned using a basic conversion. The second one would see him actually extend his contract into 2022 (2022 is currently a void year) with a guaranteed roster bonus due on the first day of the league year. They should be able to make this not subject to any forfeiture such that he can earn it and then retire, ala Andrew Luck. Doing this allows them to bring that cap number down to the $12.2225 million number and get the best of all worlds. Brees would have to also be willing to modify his contract like this. You could also do a similar contract in the Favre scenario if he is agreeable.

After thinking about it for a bit I think no matter what the Saints probably need to turn 2022 into a real contract year under any scenario in which Brees may play in 2021. Doing this  gives them the capability to do the same trick with the contract I said for 2021 and use the June 1 in 2022 if Brees plays in 2021 and wants to retire in 2022. Since Brees seems happy to play for $25M every year a token $25M base salary should be fair.

In any event I’m confident I can come up with a way to get that $23.925 million in savings here with Brees, so about $70 million to go.

Cut Kwon Alexander

No matter what happens this year the Saints have to look at this Alexander trade as a one year shot and not get fooled into trying to keep an often injured linebacker long term. There is $0 associated with releasing Alexander so that will save the team $13.4 million. We are now $56.7 million away from being cap compliant.

Restructure Cameron Jordan

The Saints just extended Jordan last season so I have to imagine he is in their plans with or without Brees. Jordan has an $18.9 million salary cap charge next year and $13.8 million in salary. He currently has one void year on his contract and they can tack on one additional one to maximize the cap savings. This move would increase the rest of his contract by $2.565 million a season but save $10.26 million on the 2021 cap. The downside with this move is you are likely locking into Jordan for at least the 2022 season when he will be 33. With this restructure we have $46.4 million left to go. (Note- Thanks to one of our readers pointing it out I had a big error here that moved this number by about $13 million from the original article so the totals are now reflected for that. Sorry for the confusion)

Cut Nick Easton

Easton’s $7 million cap figure is way too high for a player who is going to be a backup barring injury to someone else. They could try to bring his number down for the season but with just $1 million in dead money it probably makes sense to cut and then revisit later on if necessary. This saves $6 million in cap space putting us $40.4 million away from our goal.

Cut Janoris Jenkins

Jenkins is having a decent year but there is no way to justify an $11.2 million salary and a $14.2 million salary cap charge next year. Jenkins does have $1.2 million in guaranteed salary next year with no offsets but I think you just eat that charge. Cutting Jenkins frees up $7 million in cap space, though it also leaves them with an ugly $7.2 million dead money charge. We are $33.4 million away from making it to cap compliancy.

Restructure Marshon Lattimore

Lattimore is going to be a tricky contract negotiation. He is entering the final year of his contract and will count $10.244 million on the salary cap. He has probably gotten worse every year in coverage but I can’t see gutting the entire secondary in 2021 especially if Brees returns. If you enter extension negotiations with Lattimore he is going to be expensive. He is a first round pick and recent contracts for Jalen Ramsey, Tre’Davious White, and Marlon Humphrey have averaged between $17.25 million and $20 million a year. Most likely he is going to look for something close to the $20 million spectrum. I’m not sure if he is really worth that number or not to New Orleans. They could trade him but there is no cap relief associated with that during the lead in to free agency so keep that in mind if that is an option.

In any event there should not be anything that prevents me from adding four void years to Lattimore’s contract for cap purposes and deferring his salary charges to 2021. I can lower Lattimore’s cap charge to $2.84 million by doing this. If the team does wind up extending Lattimore after the season they will keep the $1.85M in proration from 22 to 25 as is, a pretty low cost overall. If they don’t extend him then you are baking $7.4 million dead into 2022, but 2021 is our primary concern not 2022 at this point. With $7.4 million in savings for 2021 we are now $26 million over the salary cap.

Extend Ryan Ramczyk

All of the above for Lattimore may also apply to Ramczyk, who will count for $11.064 million on the Saints 2021 salary cap as he moves into his final contract year. The only reason I put the extend label on him is because I think this is an easier contract to handle. Jack Conklin is the highest paid true right tackle in the NFL at $14 million a year so I think getting to $15 million a season can probably get this one done. On top of that its less money pay outs on these deals- Conklin made $20 million in new money in the first new year of his contract while the cornerbacks are well into the $30 million range. Now you can argue the benefit of a right tackle versus a corner without Brees but many teams will, I believe, opt for the security of the offensive line in front of a young QB down the line.  

I think you can do a deal here that would give Ramczyk an $8 million raise in 2021 while bringing his cap number down to $4.6 million by paying him a $1 million salary and an $18 million signing bonus. That probably means a $17.6 million cap charge the next year but that should be workable especially since they can restructure if needed. We have saved $6.46 million with the extension bringing us to about $19.6 million over the salary cap.

Cut Malcom Brown

Brown is a solid player on the Saints defensive line but I think that you can almost always find solid nose tackles that would probably be cheaper than the $6.5 million cap charge he will have next year, especially if the pandemic leads to a number of veterans being available for pennies on the dollar. If the team cuts him they will save $5 million in cap room which is significant given their cap situation. This puts us$14.5 million over the salary cap.

Cut Latavius Murray

I know the Saints like having Murray to spell Alvin Kamara but once you do that big deal with Kamara you really can’t afford to waste another $4.2 million on a backup. The backup needs to be cheaper at this point. If you cut Murray you will save $2.5 million on the cap. You would have to replace him with either a minimum salary vet (cap charge around $1M) or lower drafted rookie (cap charge around $800K). Maybe the Saints will think the net savings are not worth it , but I would think that they are. We are now $12 million away.

Cut Thomas Morstead

Morstead has been around forever and those players are hard to part ways with, but his $4.5 million cap charge is the second highest in the NFL and about $2.5 million more than the league average spent on the position. I just don’t see how you justify that, especially in today’s game. The Saints rank 22nd in number of punts through 8 games so around the NFL average or just below. They save $2.5 million by releasing Morstead getting us to $9.5 million.

Restructure Michael Thomas

I saved this one for last because while I think it will be necessary if the cap hits the lowest of lows to sign rookies and/or a QB if Brees retires I was a little hesitant because of the issues the team seems to have had with Thomas this year. Right now trading Thomas would cost the Saints $1.2 million in cap room so I don’t see that as likely even if Brees retires. However, restructuring this contract probably makes him untradeable in 2022 as well which most likely will be the last year he would have any significant trade value. By adding a void year I can drop his cap charge from $18.8 million in 2021 to $9.5 million, which blocks our trades in 2022 unless we want to take on over $25 million in dead money. So they need to make sure they are 100% on board with Thomas if they want to go here. This brings us to pretty much where we need to be to at least comply with the cap.

Other possible moves

I avoided a few other moves for a few reasons but we can walk through them here. I did not cut Emmanuel Sanders despite a $10 million cap hit. This was strictly related to my thinking Brees comes back and I think would want that third receiver. I don’t see a point in adding even more dead money to his 2022 void year because unlike Lattimore I don’t see any chance that they retain him in 2022 so I would rather bite the bullet all in 2021. If Brees does not return he is a no brainer cut regardless of a $2 million salary guarantee. Cutting him saves $4 million….I did not touch the contract of Terron Armstead. 2021 is his last year under contract and there is already $5 million in dead money for him coming in 2022. Armstead is a terrific player when healthy but has played in 7, 10, 10, and 15 games the last four years. He’ll be expensive to extend if he stays healthy but I would rather wait to see how things shake out over the next year. If they did push money on him, which would be reasonable if they see a better than 70% chance they extend him in 22, you would save $8.12 million if you add void years. If you fail to extend him, though, you have gone from $5.075 million in dead money in 2022 to $13.2 million, which is a ton of leverage for a player to have. It probably makes more sense to just extend him outright in this scenario….No chance I’m touching the Andrus Peat contract. Peat has an $11.6 million cap charge and they could open up around $6 million there, but he has the most downside of the players on that line and they should keep open the possibility of cutting him in 2022…I also didn’t touch Taysom Hill’s contract because there is no point to it and I don’t see them cutting him so no need to mention it. So if the Saints went absolutely crazy all in for 2021 and did all these things then you are looking at being around $18 million under the cap.

Final Outcome

So based on the numbers above would likely need to cut Jenkins, Alexander, Brown, Easton, Murray, and Morstead. We would be a few minor moves away from having enough space to sign rookies and a few low cost free agents. We could get lower if we really need to go all in to get to $20 million or so under which gives us more wiggle room to really look at the pros and cons of bringing back Jared Cook, Alex Anzalone, and Sheldon Rankins. If Brees does retire the team will certainly need a QB unless they really go crazy with Hill. I think they can come to a low cost agreement with Jameis Winston and if they keep him on the sidelines most of this year they can get pretty creative to give him a reasonable way to earn some money without having it count on the cap in 21. Winston flopped in free agency last year and while there will be more openings in 2022 I think they offer the best opportunity for both sides.

Remember these numbers are all worst case scenarios. If the revenues are not impacted as much as we think and they are offset by other union concessions this year you may be able to add millions and millions of dollars to these figures putting them well under the salary cap for next season.  2022 would remain challenging for the Saints even if Brees retires but each year should get easier for them as they transition to the post Brees era, though it is going to be some time before they trend toward the NFL averages for salary cap health.

Looking at Recent Positional Market Growth in the NFL

Despite CoVid-19 posing ramifications to next year’s salary cap, several positional groups have experienced strong growth over the last few months. In April, Laremy Tunsil signed a 3-year, $66M extension, eclipsing the highest paid OT, Lane Johnson, by 22%. In early July, Patrick Mahomes signed a 10-year extension worth over $450M. The deal established Mahomes as the highest paid NFL player in NFL history, a title previously held by Russell Wilson. A week later, the Chiefs extended franchise designated player, Chris Jones to a 4 year, $80M deal making him the 3rd highest paid interior defensive lineman, behind Aaron Donald and DeForest Buckner. Thereafter, Myles Garett became the highest paid Non-QB for 13 days, after which the Chargers announced an extension with Joey Bosa averaging $27M/year. In addition, in the last week, the Tight End market has skyrocketed, highlighted by George Kittle’s 5-year, $75M extension. With all the recent market growth, I thought it would be important to look at positional groups experiencing the strongest growth over the last year.  

Tight End

Over the last year, no positional group in the NFL has seen stronger growth than the Tight End market. Prior to last week, the Tight End market had been stagnant for years. From 2015-2019, the top 5 of the Tight End market had grown merely 6.91%, the lowest growth rate of all positional groups in that timespan (excluding STs). The gold standard in the TE market was set by Jimmy Graham when he signed a 4-year extension with the Saints in 2015, valued at $10M Avg./Year and 7.5% of the cap. While Graham signed another deal in 2018 with an Avg./Year of $10M, the deal was valued at 5.6% of the cap due to cap growth. During 2020 free agency, the title of highest paid Tight End on a multi-year deal was finally passed onto Austin Hooper after he signed a 4-year contract with the Browns averaging $10.5M/Year. From a dollar perspective, Hooper’s deal was seen as a market reset. However, his deal was valued at 5.3% of the cap, which still fell under Graham’s 7.5% cap figure. Last week, the TE market finally experienced a true reset after George Kittle signed an extension worth $15M/Year, valued at 7.6% of the cap. This marked a 42.85% growth from Hooper’s deal and also eclipsed the gold standard in the TE market, set by Jimmy Graham’s 2015 deal with the Saints.

Offensive Lineman

The top of the OL market has grown 17.71% since last year, thanks to the 3- year, $66M extension that Laremy Tunsil signed with the Texans in April.  The deal marked a 33.3% increase in the LT market and a 22% increase from the benchmarks Lane Johnson had set last year after signing an extension averaging $18M/year. In addition to resetting OL benchmarks by 22%, Tunsil’s extension length of 3 years is extremely favorable as he gets another opportunity to hit the open market after the 2023 season. Per the table below, Anthony Castonzo is the only other player with a shorter deal than Laremy Tunsil, when looking at the top of the market. However, Castonzo is also 32 years old, so a shorter-term deal at that age is expected.

Edge Rusher

The Edge Rusher market has exploded since 2015, with a growth rate of 60.79%. In 2015, Justin Houston set the benchmark at the position, with an Avg./Year of $16.833M. A year later, Von Miller signed an extension in 2016 worth $19.083M Avg./Year. Miller’s deal was then eclipsed in 2018 by Khalil Mack. Mack’s deal was the benchmark at the position until last month, after the Browns extended their former 2017 first overall pick to a 5 year, $125M extension with $100M in total guarantees. This marked a 6% growth at the top of the edge rush market. However, Garrett held the new title merely for two weeks, after the Chargers announced a 5-year, $135M extension with Joey Bosa. Bosa’s extension not only makes him the highest paid Non-QB in the NFL, but his deal is also the 2nd highest ever for pass rushers, in terms of cap adjusted inflation. Michael Strahan’s contract in 1999, which was valued at 17% of the cap, would equate to $33,789,858/Year while Bosa’s $27M extension is 13.62% of the cap. One of the most impressive parts of Bosa’s deal is that shortly after Garrett reset the market by 6%, Bosa was able to build off Garrett’s deal by 8%. Players like TJ Watt and Yannick Ngakoue will certainly reap the benefits of the strong deals and market growth from Garrett’s and Bosa’s deal.

Quarterback

In 2013, Aaron Rodgers was the highest paid QB, after he signed an extension worth $22M/year. Rodgers held the title from 2013-2016. However, since 2016, the top of the QB market has been a game of musical chairs, with a new highest paid QB every year. At the end of 2016, it was Andrew Luck who had an average of $24.594/Year. Luck leapfrogged Brees and Flacco, who had also signed extensions earlier that year valued at $24.250M and $22.133M, respectively. In 2017, Derek Carr became the first $25M+ player in NFL history. Two months later, the title for highest paid QB went to Matt Stafford after signing a deal worth $27M/year. In 2018 alone, a whopping 4 QBs held the title of highest paid QB which started with Jimmy Garroppolo and went through Kirk Cousins, Matt Ryan, and ended with Aaron Rodgers after he signed a deal worth $33.5M/year. In April 2019, Russell Wilson became the highest paid QB at $35M. Then last month, Patrick Mahomes eclipsed Wilson’s annual salary by 28.57%, the greatest salary jump at the top of the QB market since at least 2015. This will likely keep Mahomes $45M Avg./Year as the benchmark for at least the next year. While Deshaun Watson is eligible for a new deal, it would be difficult for him to eclipse Mahomes’ deal given he signed his extension off a Super Bowl victory and MVP. However, I would still expect Watson to contribute to the growth of the QB market and his deal should come in around $40M Avg./Year.

Other Markets

The one position that continues to remain stagnant is the cornerback market. Since 2015, the top of the 5 of the cornerback market has only grown 12.91%. The next lowest is interior DL at 24.05%. While Darius Slay became the new highest paid CB earlier this year at $16.683M Avg./Year, the gold standard in the CB market is the Patrick Peterson deal from 2014, when he signed an extension worth $14.01M and 10.53% of the cap. The next recent CB to come close to Peterson’s 10.53% of cap was Josh Norman’s 2016 free agent deal with Washington, when he signed at 9.7% of the cap. Candidates who I’d expect to significantly move the needle in the CB market include Jalen Ramsey, Tre’Davious White, Marlon Humphrey, and Marshon Lattimore. Assuming at least one player signs this season between 9.7%-10.53% of the cap, the new benchmark in the CB market should be between $19.225M-$20.870M. With the amount of draft capital the Rams traded away for Jalen Ramsey last season, he carries the most leverage and very likely will sign at $20M+/year. 

Thoughts on the Christian McCaffrey $64 Million Extension

Pro Football Talk broke down the Christian McCaffrey $64 million extension tonight which gives us a chance to look at the details of the contract and see how is stacks up against some comparable players and for the Panthers in general.

Obviously it’s a pretty strong contract for McCaffrey. Here are the year by year cash flows compared to the other two recent big money running back contracts.

PlayerYear 0Year 1Year 2Year 3Year 4
Christian McCaffrey$19,263,412$27,863,412$39,863,412$51,863,412$64,063,412
Ezekiel Elliott$15,100,000$24,700,000$37,100,000$48,000,000$58,000,000
Todd Gurley$15,000,022$28,050,022$37,050,022$47,050,022$57,500,000

McCaffrey will really jump the field in “Old year” (year 0) payments where he will earn a $19.2 million raise over his existing contract. The other two players earned just $15 million. He will, however, actually trail Gurley in first year new money which looks to be one of two concessions made by his side. He jumps the field with nearly $40 million in new money earned by the second new contract year and got well over $50 million for three years. That number is stunning to me because the natural progression would have been to get to $49 million.

In terms of contract structure I’d consider this also pretty favorable for McCaffrey. Here is the breakdown of the three players based on their effective contract values (this included old and new money) to better put the guarantees into perspective. For Elliot we are only using six years rather than the full eight to make a fair comparison. While the contract years should be a driver of sorts for guarantees in the case of a running back those back end seasons are guaranteed worthless so I think for this it makes sense to use the same timeframe as the other two.

PlayerTotal ValueProrated% ProratedInjury guarantee% Inj GuaranteedFull by next Year% Full by next year
Christian McCaffrey$75,362,500$21,500,00028.5%$39,462,50052.4%$38,462,50051.0%
Ezekiel Elliott$70,952,187$20,500,00028.9%$50,052,13770.5%$37,652,13753.1%
Todd Gurley$69,449,978$21,000,00030.2%$45,000,00064.8%$34,500,00049.7%

The second concession I see here is on the injury guarantee on the contract. Elliot was over $50 million which was over 70% of his four year value while Gurley was at $45 million. McCaffrey is essentially at $40 million. He will get the most quick protection though, with $38.4 million guaranteed within one year of signing. That trails Elliot on a percentage basis but it is the largest of the group and considering the riskiness of the position is a good thing for him. The $21.5 million signing bonus did surprise me a little only because I thought there were better ways they could have structured this but if the goal was to surpass Gurley then he got that done, even if again on a percentage basis he didn’t.

Overall Id say the mission here was to mimic Gurley’s contract adjusted for cap inflation and in that respect it is pretty much mission accomplished with the exception of the injury protection.

As for the cap charges we should be looking at charges of $7.8M, $12.5M, $12.9M, $16.3M, $16.3M, and $12.2M. Those first few years are reasonable which is important especially because there is a good chance that the salary cap in 2021 may be significantly impacted by the Covid-19 crisis. So having a reasonable number in 2021 is something teams should be aware of.

McCaffrey, barring a suspension, will be uncuttable until 2023 at which point the dead money would be $8.6 million. He received the same favorable vesting schedule on his 2022 guarantee that Elliot and Gurley negotiated on their third year guarantee so once that kicks in the dead money will rise to $21 million. A trade that year would cost $12.9 million. None of these scenarios would be ideal for Carolina.

For the Panthers to get any value out of this contract they need McCaffrey to be effective through at least 2023. Anything less than that is really a waste. If we assume that the franchise tag in 2022 will be around $12 million and his 2023 tag would be $14.4 million they could have gone the tag route and paid $26.6 million for those two seasons. On his current contract he will earn $27.86M in additional money by 2022 and $39.87M by 2023.

Basically the Panthers are paying an extra $15 million for the 2022 season and $13.2 million for the rights to both years. The cap number for those years is $12.9M and $16.3M so its not as if there is even a salary cap benefit to not playing on the tag those season. So he has to be on the team in 2023 for this contract to make any sense for the team. As I discussed the other day that would be a long shot but they have to hope he is the one otherwise they will get the same treatment the Rams got a few weeks ago when they cut ties with Gurley.

Age vs Cost: NFL Rosters in 2019

Normally I like to do things like this at the start of the NFL but with the mad rush of extensions right before the regular season began I decided to hold off until we were more current with all the contacts, but now that we are here we can do more roster cutups. The one I wanted to look at today was how old teams skew, relative to their average annual salary, at the top of the roster.

For this I looked at each team’s top 15 players annual salaries and then calculated the average age for each group. The graph is broken up into four quadrants. The top left quadrant represents the teams that trend more expensive and older. The bottom left are teams that are both young and cheap. The top right quadrant is where we get the older and expensive teams and the bottom right are those that are older but they don’t spend as much on those players. My feeling is the further off you are to the top right the more you have riding on this season. Those in the bottom left likely have the least riding on this year.

Age vs cost of top 15 NFL players

So a few takeaways. I think its safe to say that this is the Vikings year they have to win. They have more money invested in their top players and it is by a pretty significant margin- $10 million more than the next closest team. At an average age of 28.9 years they have moved slightly past the NFL average of 28.5 so in many ways its now or likely never for them, especially since the team is looking to be cap strapped next year without changes. I think you could argue similar things about the Rams as well but they don’t have the cap baggage next year.

The Patriots are the only team in the NFL with a top 15 that averages over 30 years of age. Even if you pull Brady out of the mix they average over 30. They are more or less the lone team in the NFL that seems to be following the older path of the NFL that solid veterans are better than unproven rookies even if the upside is not there. One of the key differences here though is that the Patriots group is cheap. The cost of $123 million per year is 6th lowest in the NFL. In the “old days” one of the flops using this strategy was signing players towards their 30+ years to large contract extensions that killed the teams. This is a more economical use of resources.

The Eagles may wind up representing that older philosophy by next year. They are the second oldest team in the NFL at 29.9 years and they are locked into some expensive contracts with void years to limit the cap costs. 12 of their top 15 will be 29 years old by years end.

The other teams in the older side of the bracket that I found a little surprising are the Titans, Cardinals, and Bills. Tennessee did really begin to go all in on more veterans the last few years in hopes of getting something out of Mariota and they need to make the playoffs this year. Arizona Im surprised has not purged more of their team. They have really relied on older player signings to round out this roster. The Bills are another team that I knew signed some cheap veterans to fill the roster but I didn’t realize that they still had so many that were also in their highest paid category.

On the younger end I was surprised by Atlanta. I look at the Falcons as an older team (they do have the oldest overall roster in the NFL) and one that has probably had their window close, but they wound up slightly under the NFL average with a top 15 of just 28.3 years old. They do have the third most expensive group behind the Vikings and Rams so clearly anything but the playoffs would be disappointing, but they are not as over invested in older talent at the top of their roster as I thought.

Once Dallas gets their extensions done they will skyrocket into a similar spot as the Falcons, but probably a year behind where Atlanta is now. Dallas is going to be in a win now mode starting in 2020 if they don’t win it all this year.

Houston stands out like a sore thumb. This is a team with huge amounts of cap room but also a reputation of being one of the cheapest teams in the NFL and it shows. They have a good team but I think you can argue they are wasting the peak of Watson’s years by not at least being closer to the league average in spending. They have the 5th least amount of money invested in their top 15 players. They will be an interesting team to watch next year in free agency. They could open the wallet and go after some good talent or they could pull a Grigson era Colts deal and look for cheap veterans with name value.  With no expensive draft picks they should be spending next year.

Oakland being the youngest team surprised me only because I associate Gruden with looking at the older talent, but for the most part they have kept those contract numbers low so they don’t land in their top 15. They have a number of prime years free agent signings but those are balanced out by first round type contracts on the back end of their top 15 paid players.

2018 NFL Roster Construction

Yesterday we took a look at how much teams are spending on their rosters in 2018 and today we will look at the makeup of the rosters by draft status. In general teams that have more first round type of players are generally considered the teams with more potential though we all know that stars are found in every round of the draft, and many times even go undrafted. So lets look at the numbers.

Breakdown by Current Contract Status

CategoryPlayersValueAvg/Player
Drafted36.3%$957,355,352$1,346,491
UFA20.0%$1,889,218,613$4,831,761
SFA- Rookie12.6%$139,306,034$566,285
Extension10.9%$1,900,319,058$8,921,686
UDFA8.7%$96,355,502$563,482
SFA- Veteran5.4%$234,178,332$2,230,270
ERFA3.1%$36,795,000$613,250
RFAs1.3%$58,995,000$2,269,038
Renegotiated1.0%$109,012,706$5,737,511
Fran/Trans0.9%$230,833,666$13,578,451

Well it is certainly a young man’s game in the NFL. About 62% of NFL teams are made up of players who are on a rookie controlled contract. Those numbers are important because it keeps costs low for teams. The average rookie contract averages just $1.06 million per year compared to $5.85 million per veteran.

The majority of players in the NFL are operating on a rookie contract that came in the slotted NFL draft. That can date back as far as 2014 though most are from 2015 onward. The second largest category are those who signed contracts following the expiration of this last contract. I consider these players UFAs even if they technically signed extensions in February and didn’t hit free agency.  Our undrafted types make up the third category (most rookie street signings are undrafteds) and then we move into the extension categories.

I think one of the fair points to contend with in the next CBA are rookie salaries and perhaps tying them to increases in the cap. For example the salary cap has risen about 47% since the new CBA was signed, yet undrafted contracts’ values have risen by 22.6%. They aren’t the only ones either as some the later rounds of the draft, where 25% rules are not maximized and bonuses are low, are also only seeing 20% raises. The top 3 rounds more or less keep up with cap inflation. This can lead to big savings for the owners in the NFL and pinch those lower veterans. Its possible the savings go into extensions but Id be pretty sure that they are not helping the $1-$2M type player stay in the NFL. Its just too cheap to keep the rookies.

The second takeaway I had here deals with the Raiders and the trap that so many are falling into with the concept of hoarding cap space. Hoarding cap space to save for paying your young players is fine. Saving it for the thought of free agent returns is fools gold. While unrestricted free agency certainly has some gems look at the numbers on the UFA and veteran Street contract compared to the contract extension. That speaks volumes to the type of player who plays his contract out and enters the market.

Now if you don’t believe that a player like Khalil Mack is worth the contract that’s fine but to go with the logic that you need to build a team and can spread it around elsewhere, then answer the question on who?  In a perfect world where tons of players hit free agency that may be the right play, but in the NFL work where the top players ae never available who are you spending it one?  Four $4M players?  That wont give the production. Do they have two or three building block guys that need extensions soon?  Probably not. The reality is we aren’t at a time when you can get your hands on higher quality players in free agency which is why teams never let those players go.

Where is the NFL finding talent

About 68% of NFL players come via the draft with 32% of players being undrafted.  The low cost of those undrafteds really stands out here and helps those teams fill rosters each year.

Draft RoundAnnual Contract Value% of NFL RostersAvg. Contract Per Player
UDFA$943,209,73532.2%$1,494,786
1$1,969,778,69414.5%$6,935,840
2$914,190,96510.8%$4,332,659
3$634,315,71910.4%$3,124,708
4$398,212,0779.9%$2,052,640
5$357,629,7238.9%$2,055,343
6$285,537,8988.2%$1,784,612
7$149,494,4525.2%$1,465,632

I had posted these numbers yesterday on Twitter and got a lot of feedback about how this doesn’t tell the whole story of undrafted roles, which is accurate. It is afterall cheap labor. But one of the ways we can look at it is to see who in the NFL has earned a second contract and how much they are earning. That takes the pure draft status out of the equation since they have proven enough to move to the more expensive veteran class.  Here is the breakdown by round of just the veteran players as well as the average value of the top 32 veterans from each group.

Draft Round% of NFL rostersAnnual Contract ValueAvg Contract Per PlayerTop 32 Avg. Contract
UDFA27.1%$667,703,366$3,305,462$8,543,583
119.9%$1,492,993,847$10,087,796$19,535,198
213.2%$763,714,283$7,793,003$13,719,135
311.0%$532,310,911$6,491,596$11,256,930
49.7%$308,475,833$4,284,387$7,633,073
58.3%$284,563,402$4,589,732$7,353,385
66.6%$208,599,066$4,257,124$5,945,752
74.3%$105,201,667$3,287,552$3,287,552

This should give us a better idea of a few things. First of all the decline in UDFA and 5th-7th round percentages should probably give us a good idea of how many players are being kept in the NFL because they are cheap versus their performance. Those are arguably the roster spots being taken up for the lower level veteran that can still play but cant find a job.

The UDFA player is more or less on par, salary wise, with the 7th round talent which makes some sense. However there is more variability in that number as the top players who were UDFAs have an average contract of $8.5M a year. So there are plenty of high level players slipping through the cracks of the draft. Finding them isn’t easy but the punchers chance of finding a high level talent is as good as in the 4th and higher rounds.

The first round talent stands out here with the massive paydays but again I can see the logic in the Bears trade when looking at this. The average draft pick in the first round, who remains in the NFL, is earning around $10 million a year. To find a Mack you are going to have to likely land, after factoring in cuts who just don’t make it, in the top 15% of all 1st round selections to come close to the same player. Do two good players and the difference in savings for one of those UFA veterans make it work out in the Raiders favor? Maybe but its hard to see it more than a breaking even range.

Team Roster Construction: Contract Type

The Bengals, Packers, Ravens, Rams, and 49ers all have over 43% of their roster from players on their original draft contract while the Raiders, Saints, Titans, Cardinals, Patriots and Bills are under 31%.

The Jets, Bills, Titans, and Raiders are all over 30% UFA contracts. That’s indicative of poor drafting and dragging your feet on extensions. At the bottom of the list are the Cowboys, Packers, Vikings, Cardinals and Bengals. These teams are strong on extensions and have somewhat minimized trips into free agency while focusing instead on draft development.

The top teams with players on extensions are the Patriots, Falcons, Steelers, Cowboys, and Eagles. The Cowboys are the odd man out here but there others are all in a “mature” phase with their roster in that the core is set up for some time. The Jets are the only team without a true extended contract on the roster which says something about their drafting. The Bills, Colts, and Raiders also have few. These are the worst drafting teams in the NFL.

Not surprisingly the Raiders top the list of street free agents who are veterans. They were enamored this offseason by names from the past. The Cardinals, Lions, and Bills all rank high there as well. Each were tight with the cap and that may have played a role. The Jaguars didn’t even touch any of the cuts.

Finally the teams filling out the rosters with the most cheap talent (UDFA and street rookies) are the Colts, Giants and Vikings, all over 30%. The Jets were the only team under 10% while the Packers, Lions, and Falcons were under 15%.

TeamDraftedUFAExtensionUDFASFA VetSFA RookERFARFAReneg.Franchise
Bengals50.8%13.1%13.1%6.6%1.6%13.1%0.0%0.0%0.0%1.6%
Packers47.5%11.9%11.9%8.5%8.5%5.1%6.8%0.0%0.0%0.0%
Ravens46.3%13.4%9.0%16.4%3.0%3.0%7.5%0.0%0.0%1.5%
Rams43.8%15.6%9.4%4.7%4.7%12.5%4.7%1.6%1.6%1.6%
49ers43.3%21.7%8.3%6.7%8.3%8.3%1.7%0.0%1.7%0.0%
Dolphins41.1%21.4%14.3%7.1%3.6%8.9%3.6%0.0%0.0%0.0%
Falcons40.4%21.2%19.2%5.8%3.8%5.8%0.0%1.9%1.9%0.0%
Cowboys39.3%8.2%16.4%3.3%4.9%23.0%0.0%1.6%1.6%1.6%
Lions38.6%22.8%10.5%1.8%10.5%10.5%1.8%1.8%0.0%1.8%
Texans37.9%20.7%12.1%13.8%6.9%6.9%0.0%1.7%0.0%0.0%
Jets37.9%37.9%0.0%3.4%3.4%5.2%5.2%6.9%0.0%0.0%
Browns37.3%20.3%8.5%8.5%5.1%15.3%1.7%0.0%1.7%1.7%
Broncos36.9%13.8%7.7%6.2%4.6%13.8%10.8%3.1%0.0%3.1%
Redskins36.1%21.3%13.1%8.2%3.3%14.8%0.0%1.6%1.6%0.0%
Buccaneers35.9%17.2%10.9%7.8%6.3%15.6%1.6%3.1%0.0%1.6%
Colts35.6%13.7%4.1%11.0%6.8%23.3%5.5%0.0%0.0%0.0%
Bears35.6%28.8%6.8%6.8%3.4%13.6%0.0%3.4%0.0%1.7%
Chargers35.6%18.6%6.8%13.6%5.1%13.6%0.0%3.4%1.7%1.7%
Eagles35.5%16.1%16.1%6.5%3.2%17.7%0.0%0.0%4.8%0.0%
Seahawks34.8%18.2%13.6%10.6%6.1%7.6%6.1%3.0%0.0%0.0%
Jaguars33.9%24.2%11.3%11.3%0.0%16.1%1.6%1.6%0.0%0.0%
Chiefs32.3%17.7%14.5%14.5%3.2%11.3%4.8%0.0%0.0%1.6%
Steelers31.8%13.6%18.2%6.1%3.0%15.2%7.6%3.0%0.0%1.5%
Vikings31.8%12.1%15.2%15.2%1.5%16.7%3.0%3.0%1.5%0.0%
Panthers31.7%23.8%12.7%4.8%7.9%12.7%4.8%0.0%0.0%1.6%
Giants31.7%20.6%6.3%14.3%6.3%19.0%1.6%0.0%0.0%0.0%
Bills30.9%34.5%3.6%3.6%9.1%12.7%3.6%0.0%0.0%1.8%
Patriots30.6%21.0%22.6%9.7%3.2%8.1%0.0%0.0%3.2%1.6%
Titans30.5%33.9%8.5%8.5%5.1%10.2%0.0%1.7%1.7%0.0%
Cardinals29.5%13.1%6.6%9.8%11.5%18.0%4.9%0.0%4.9%1.6%
Saints28.8%23.7%11.9%15.3%6.8%11.9%1.7%0.0%0.0%0.0%
Raiders28.3%31.7%5.0%6.7%11.7%8.3%5.0%0.0%3.3%0.0%

Team Roster Construction: Draft Status

Finally we look at where the players were drafted on each team. Many of these players are still on a rookie contract but many are not.

If everyone played up to expectations of their draft the teams that should be the best this year are the Raiders, Falcons, Saints, Steelers, and Packers. Of course the Raiders are a bunch of old men but if you just blindly look at where the players were drafted they have amassed a talented group. Is that talent still there?  Most would say no. Teams like the Chargers and Redskins would be the other teams with high top 3 round investments.

The surprising one is probably the Vikings who have a lot invested in the roster and have found some of those top tier players in the lower portions of the draft, perhaps not that different than Seattle years ago. If you look at where everyone came from on the team you would not expect much but they are clearly a super bowl contender.

The other teams who need players to play above their draft level are the Colts, who you can argue have the least talented group in the NFL, the Jets, Lions, Bills, and Bears among others.

TeamUndrafted1st Round2nd Round3rd Round4th Round5th Round6th Round7th Round
Cardinals39.3%21.3%6.6%9.8%6.6%4.9%8.2%3.3%
Saints35.6%18.6%11.9%15.3%5.1%6.8%1.7%5.1%
Raiders26.7%18.3%15.0%13.3%8.3%11.7%5.0%1.7%
Steelers34.8%18.2%13.6%10.6%7.6%6.1%7.6%1.5%
Panthers36.5%17.5%14.3%3.2%9.5%7.9%4.8%6.3%
Falcons23.1%17.3%13.5%15.4%7.7%9.6%11.5%1.9%
Texans25.9%17.2%5.2%12.1%13.8%6.9%13.8%5.2%
Chargers32.2%16.9%10.2%11.9%6.8%10.2%8.5%3.4%
Titans32.2%16.9%8.5%10.2%5.1%15.3%5.1%6.8%
Redskins24.6%16.4%9.8%13.1%8.2%9.8%11.5%6.6%
Eagles29.0%16.1%11.3%11.3%9.7%12.9%6.5%3.2%
Patriots25.8%16.1%9.7%9.7%9.7%6.5%12.9%9.7%
Rams29.7%15.6%9.4%7.8%10.9%4.7%15.6%6.3%
Packers25.4%15.3%15.3%8.5%15.3%11.9%5.1%3.4%
49ers23.3%15.0%6.7%13.3%6.7%10.0%11.7%13.3%
Ravens31.3%14.9%6.0%10.4%16.4%9.0%10.4%1.5%
Cowboys36.1%14.8%9.8%9.8%14.8%1.6%9.8%3.3%
Bills34.5%14.5%9.1%7.3%9.1%16.4%5.5%3.6%
Giants41.3%14.3%12.7%11.1%9.5%3.2%6.3%1.6%
Dolphins28.6%14.3%12.5%8.9%12.5%8.9%12.5%1.8%
Bears32.2%13.6%10.2%3.4%13.6%10.2%10.2%6.8%
Browns27.1%13.6%15.3%8.5%15.3%5.1%8.5%6.8%
Bengals21.3%13.1%13.1%11.5%14.8%9.8%6.6%9.8%
Vikings42.4%12.1%9.1%3.0%7.6%12.1%6.1%7.6%
Seahawks30.3%12.1%9.1%13.6%9.1%10.6%7.6%7.6%
Jaguars43.5%11.3%11.3%11.3%3.2%9.7%3.2%6.5%
Buccaneers40.6%10.9%17.2%9.4%6.3%6.3%4.7%4.7%
Broncos38.5%10.8%9.2%10.8%7.7%10.8%9.2%3.1%
Lions28.1%10.5%12.3%7.0%15.8%14.0%7.0%5.3%
Jets29.3%10.3%3.4%20.7%10.3%6.9%10.3%8.6%
Chiefs35.5%9.7%12.9%16.1%8.1%6.5%8.1%3.2%
Colts39.7%8.2%11.0%5.5%12.3%9.6%6.8%6.8%

Looking at a Possible Contract Extension for Antonio Brown

Antonio Brown has been one of the best receivers in the league the past few years, arguably the best. In any matchup he’s faced, even the toughest ones, Brown finds a way to have a big game. It doesn’t even feel surprising anymore when he has monstrous games of ten catches and well over 100 yards. Retaining Antonio Brown for an extended period of time is definitely a top priority for the Steelers, because he and Ben Roethlisberger are a deadly duo.

Continue reading Looking at a Possible Contract Extension for Antonio Brown »